VHS Revival travels back in time with an ageless classic
Back to the Future is about change, about fate and destiny and the possibility of a second chance. Those sentiments may smack of mawkish wish-fulfilment, and Robert Zemeckis’ cultural phenomenon is nothing if not idealistic, but there are ways to promote such romanticism without descending into the sickly slush of blueprint Hollywood, and in December of 1985 Back to the Future showed us just how creative Hollywood can be with a nostalgia piece that played with the generation gap, providing fun-filled relatability for the whole family.
Naturally, like anything fresh and inventive and ultimately landmark, it wasn’t easy convincing studios that what Zemeckis had in his possession was commercial gold. A draft of the screenplay had been passed around as early as 1981, and following the commercial bomb that was Used Cars, Zemeckis’ “nice, sweet story” was repeatedly rejected in an era when raunchy, frat-based comedies reigned supreme. Luckily, a rather prominent director with a knack for producing some of the period’s most memorable movies had a very different opinion. “It was a very unusual story,” Steven Spielberg would explain. “And yet it was based on a lot of old fashioned principles: of family, coming of age, getting your first car. All the dreams and desires you have for your own life, the dreams and desires your parents might have had but didn’t succeed in realising. And it was about the generation gap, and it was about the major disconnect between our generation and our own parents’ generation.”
For many kids of the 1980s, Back to the Future is the ultimate nostalgia trip. One of many Spielberg-produced wonders that came to define the decade, it is buoyed by the same adventurous spirit, with a lovably rougish protagonist who skids from shot-to-shot as he rides the inspirational wave of Alan Silvestri’s timeless score. Time travel ranks up there with the ultimate human fantasies. Who hasn’t pondered travelling back in time to correct something or skipping a few days forward to find out that week’s lottery numbers? To have that kind of control throws up endless possibilities, but it’s with the idea of losing control when the fun really begins.
The main premise for Back to the Future was developed after writer Bob Gale found his father’s high school yearbook and discovered that he had been president of his graduating class. Gale, who had attended the same high school a generation down the line, had been struck by how different they were as students, and wondered whether he and his father would have gotten along were they somehow part of the same era. In the movie, Marty and George are polar opposites. They are also products of very different cultures, both existing on each side of the Civil Rights Movement and a period of vast social change. What makes the movie so special is that we are able to participate as an audience, foreshadowing every last quirky facet as the disapproving 1950s threaten to swallow our protagonist’s whole existence. We are given the pieces of a puzzle, not just in terms of events, but through altered familial perceptions as Marty’s observations reveal a very different history from the one he had previously imagined. Central to this is young hellcat and future mother Lorraine, who goes some way to proving that parents can be hypocrites too.
The first variation of 1985 reveals a McFly household of perennial underachievers. Marty’s mother is an alcoholic, his father a mousy nerd who lives in the shadow of his own failure and suppressed ambitions. On the greener side of the suburban fence is Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a colossal oppressor who treats George like they’re still in high school. Marty, a loveable rogue with ambitions of becoming a guitarist, seems to be the anomaly beset on breaking the McFly curse, and break the curse he will, but not in a way he ever could have imagined.
Marty – What, you smoke too?
Lorraine – Marty, you’re beginning to sound like my mother.
In present day Hill Valley, Marty’s mother is forever championing the virtues of her generation, a time when girls had standards and would never dream of making sexual advancements like those unscrupulous harlots of the ‘80s, but when Marty runs into the younger version of Lorraine he finds out first-hand just how little he knows about her past beyond her parental facade. George too, a timid loner who seems to have stumbled onto his marriage by pure happenstance, was not the pitiful choirboy his son presumes but a peeping Tom who was struck down by Lorraine’s father’s car, not by fate as the two would have their son believe, but due to his exploits as a peeping Tom, a pastime that threatens to destroy the McFly family history.
What is truly astonishing about Back to the Future are the multi-faceted performances of an ensemble cast of mostly rookie actors. With an average age of 23, our youthful troupe are tasked with playing different variations of the same characters, a concept explored even further in the movie’s sequels, and every one of them achieves those variations with an astonishing degree of maturity. Whether it’s a stammering George McFly (Crispin Glover) or a gloomy, vodka-soaked Lorraine (Lea Thompson), each portrayal is as colourful and as stand-out as the next, while Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff Tannen gives us so many variations of the pigheaded bully that it’s hard to recall such a memorable and endearing onscreen ignoramus in a genre that is positively teeming with them.
Biff is perhaps the truest example of fate in the entire movie. His relentless scourge is as star-crossed to the McFly clan as Romeo is to Juliet. Whether he’s uttering the ominous ‘McFly!’ or attempting to get fresh with the family matriarch, Tannen, whatever his age, form or generation, is an omnipotent presence in Marty’s family history, preordained as the inevitable force who will either make or break their entire existence.
Holding it all together is Doctor Emmet Brown, a zany, wild-eyed inventor who struggles to maintain pragmatism and logic in an environment completely devoid of it. Christopher Lloyd is the heartbeat of the entire movie, giving a career high physical performance and delivering a plethora of iconic lines that are woven in to the very fabric of cult cinema. With his frazzled appearance and and wild-eyed revelations he is the movie’s moral compass, his co-dependent relationship with Marty providing its emotional core as they race blindly towards one of many possible fates. Their ultimate destination may lack certainty, but we cling to their coattails with the zest and zeal of children strapped to a roller coaster, one with so many twists and timescale loops we are reduced to wide-eyed passengers with no option but to just let go.
Biff Tannen – Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here!
The movie’s plot, although tightly knit and clearly delivered, depends on so many variables that the possibilities seem endless. Time travel has never been the most graspable concept, much like anything beyond mortal comprehension, but as a plot device it is pure gold, and never has it been handled as exhilaratingly as Back to the Future. The screenplay was devised using what is known as the index card method, whereby index cards are pinned to a bulletin board, each idea triggering another plot or character development, a process that led to iconic moments such as Marty’s inventing of the skateboard. But as fun as all of this is for the viewer, it was excruciating to develop. As Zemeckis would later lament, “During a screenplay like Back to the Future, it was just an immense amount of very hard, backbreaking work. I mean, there was nothing really fun about writing the screenplay. It was really hard.”
This is unsurprising considering the multitude of plot developments, backtracking and a storytelling map that explores all kinds of parallels and multiplicities, all of them delivered at a breathless pace that never sacrifices entertainment. Of course, if you analyse the movie’s events with any seriousness the whole thing falls apart. After George and Lorraine finally get together, it is Marty they have to thank for their union, to the extent that they even name their first child after him. When that child grows up to look exactly like their time-travelling hero, you would think one of them would notice the similarities. When Marty travels back to the future to warn Doc of his impending death at the hands of plutonium-smuggling terrorists, there are two versions of Marty running around Hill Valley at the same time, which suggests that their loop is endless.
The movie refuses to treat this as a hindrance, however. In fact, it thrives on such inconsistencies, inviting you to strap yourself in and revel in the breakneck implausibility. The basic plot sends Marty back in time to warn Doc about his inevitable murder, but Marty’s mere presence in a time before he was even conceived threatens to unravel his friend’s theory of the space-time continuum, and while other movies may have buckled under the burden of logicality, Back to the Future stabilises it with its clever parallels and comical quirks.
Marty, the only character in the entire movie who is not plunged into time-altering chaos, alters time in ways that reach beyond the destiny of his family. Not only does he invent the skateboard and introduce history’s most infamous sci-fi villains to the public’s consciousness, he introduces rock ‘n roll music to a generation who will soon thrive on it, leading to one of the most memorable phone calls in all of cinema.
Marvin Berry – [on the phone, as Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode”] Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this! [holds the receiver out]
Much of the movie’s humour derives from Zemeckis’ idea of two colliding generations, the gaudy extravagance of the ’80s invading a culture on the verge of liberation, but one still mired in the staunch conservatism of its elders, and one certainly unprepared for the likes of Marty McFly, whose impromptu Van Halen solo and Walkman-led proclamations about Darth Vader’s brain-melting capacities are both bold and relatable, extravagant and somehow within the realms of pulp plausibility (except maybe the notion that movie star Ronald Reagan will one day become the president of the United States of America).
But for all its complexity and structural innovations Back to the Future‘s true strength lies in its sense of fun and creativity, as well as the sweetness that would see it banished to commercial purgatory for close to a half decade. It is a memorable adventure with unforgettable characters and performances. It is the kind of fun and inventive movie you rarely get in today’s pre-packaged, tightly regimented production machine.
For those of us who were children at the time of Back to the Future’s release, this movie is the ultimate ’80s time capsule, capturing the decade’s decadence in all of its kitsch glory. Bubble jackets, skateboards and Calvin Klein underwear may have seemed positively futuristic to those citizens of the pre-rock ‘n roll era, but for the movie’s original demographic they speak of a time long ago, a notion that the movie will always continue to champion, even when the events of our generation are but a distant memory.